Blogger Abby Johnson

The Collection Development Line

Where is the line between having a balanced collection and serving the needs of your patrons?

I am a firm believer in representing all points of view and having a balanced children’s collection at my library.  In a perfect world, my budget would be $100,000,000.00 and space would be unlimited and I could give everyone access to everything and let my patrons decide what they want to expose themselves to.

Unfortunately, my budget is much, much less than $100,000,000.00 and the shelf space in my building definitely has limits.

So where do we draw the line?

Okay, let’s put all issues of religion, ethnicity, and politics aside.

Say my library serves a population that consists largely of people who love puppies.

There are definitely some people who love kitties, hamsters, or parakeets, but the majority of the people we serve love puppies, and we get many more requests for books about puppies than we get for any of the other animals.  I want to give my patrons what they want, to make the collection useful for them, but I also want to keep my collection balanced.  Should I buy books about kitties, hamsters, and parakeets for every puppy-themed book that I purchase?

What if I don’t have the funds to do that?  My patrons would check out 100 puppy books, but if I bought 25 puppy books, 25 kitty books, 25 hamster books, and 25 parakeet books, the puppy books would fly off the shelves and the others would just sit there.  With budgets as tight as they are, how can I justify purchasing 75 books that might only check out a handful of times?  Not to mention that the tax-payers of my community pay for these books.  If they want puppy books and they ask for them, shouldn’t I do my best to fill their needs?

On the other hand, what about the people who love kitties or hamsters in my community?  If I have 90 puppy books and only a few books about kitties and hamsters, will they wonder why they’re not as well represented at the library?  They pay taxes, too.  And what about people who love puppies but want to learn a little more about parakeets?  If people who love puppies don’t have access to information and stories about kitties, hamsters, and parakeets, how can they expand their minds?  And what about the people who haven’t given a lot of thought about animals and turn to the library to make up their minds?

I definitely want materials that represent these different animals in my collection, but is it okay to skew the collection towards puppies if that’s how my population is skewed?

Now, substitute religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, or political views for the animals mentioned above.

What do you think?  Where is the line between providing access to all points of view and providing the materials that our patrons are asking for?  Since we do have limited budgets and limited shelf space, we have to draw a line somewhere.  I’m going to venture that the line will be different for every community.

Where is your line?

Abby Johnson, Children’s Manager
New Albany-Floyd County Public Library
New Albany, IN
(You can also visit me at!)


  1. Michelle

    I would think you wouldn’t want to exclude the potential to provide patrons with the type of book they are most interested in. Perhaps develop the collection at different percentages where the largest percentage of books are for subject areas where there is demand and then smaller percentages to other area. There is always the potential to encourage puppy lovers to read more about kitties too! You never know who you might convert. 😉

  2. Matthew Thomas

    Excellent question. Old but always relevant.

    I think the solution to this problem must come with more information. I wish that this among other issues in librarianship was dealt with more scientifically, more rationality.

    There IS the constant battle between what your patrons want versus what they need, between the majority of patrons and the minority, between the roles of education and entertainment. But the only way to find the best balance, the sweet spot among all the possibilities would be to get a more controlled understanding of our patrons, regulars, irregulars and potentials, their use (or non-use) behaviours, and their connection to the impossible-to-nail-down, constantly fluctuating subject/genre categories.

    The extreme of pandering entirely (or even almost entirely) to majority opinion and statistics is unfair and unsupportive of even the majority. The opposite extreme of complete subject/genre balance, regardless of use is pointless and arbitrary. The balance is somewhere in the middle and PERHAPS through actual analysis of the variables involved could there be found an answer.

    Of course, no such collection development science of this kind exists as far as I know.

  3. Anne

    Great post, Abby, and an issue that should be on every librarian’s mind, especially those who work with youth. My community is overwhelming white and Christian, and the collection has been skewed in that direction. I have been working on balancing it ever since I started here almost 2 years ago. It is important to remember that many families want their children to learn about cultures and religions other than their own. And your collection will be so much more welcoming to minorities and others who might otherwise feel excluded.

  4. The Cougar Librarian

    I think this entry was triggered from a post and response on PUBYAC, right? 🙂

    In these budget times (a phrase that I seem to say or write every other hour – it’s getting annoying), we have to get the most bang for our buck and make prudent choices. My community serves many, many Muslims families but not as many Jews. Guess what religion has more shelf space in my library? It’s not like we have no books on Judaism – we do. But the demand is greater for Muslim books, so that’s where more money goes. Same with foreign languages – once in a while we’ll get someone who asks why we don’t carry books in Tamil, Tagalog, etc. We can’t sink time and money in a new collection for a small, small minority of folks. We can refer them to other libraries, or use ILL.

  5. Henry

    I think that how you cultivate a balanced collection with responding to the community depends on a few key points: 1) The definition of access. Do you have to buy 75 books that only circulate a handful of times if 25 will do? Let’s say that 75 seems to satisfy the browsers (because there will always be something on the shelf to come across), but 25 will satisfy the searchers. Is the relative amount of requests the best way to guide purchasing? 2) What is availability of books? Finding 25 books about parakeets might be difficult. How long should you search for books to buy, and through how many publishers/book dealers should you make purchases?

    I think our most important job is to give kids the feeling that we will meet their needs. I think we have to stock the shelf with what is most likely to be asked for, but also be very vocal about the fact that we can get what isn’t there. If kids feel like the librarian can what they want, we have at least covered the searchers. The browsers, and facilitating discovery, is a harder question for me.

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